Bosnian Serbs’ War Commissions: Fact-Seeking or Truth-Distorting?

A cemetery of graves of war victims that was opened during the Sarajevo siege. Photo: EPA/FEHIM DEMIR.

Bosnian Serbs’ War Commissions: Fact-Seeking or Truth-Distorting?

February 25, 2019
February 25, 2019
Two new commissions set up by Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity to examine wartime crimes in Srebrenica and Sarajevo have been accused of seeking to distort the truth to whitewash Serbs’ role in atrocities.

This article is also available in: Shqip Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

Two controversial new commissions set up by the Republika Srpska government to examine wartime crimes in Srebrenica and Sarajevo are to hold their first meetings in late March despite widespread concerns raised by international experts, diplomats and Bosniak war victims’ organisations that their aim is to rewrite history.

The two commissions have suitably weighty names – the Independent international Commission for Investigating the Sufferings of all Peoples in the Srebrenica Region in the Period from 1992 to 1995 and the Independent International Commission for Investigating the Sufferings of Serbs in Sarajevo in the Period from 1991 to 1995 – and are made up of a variety of academics from all over the world. How they will actually work, and what methodology they will use, is not yet known.

Milorad Kojic, the director of the government-funded Republika Srpska Centre for the Research of War, War Crimes and the Search for the Missing, insisted that the commissions’ only goal was “to determine the truth”.

“There can be only one truth. These are international commissions which will work without pressures. We expect them to determine the truth,” Kojic told BIRN.

But last week, 31 international experts on the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia published an open letter saying that the commissions appear to be an attempt to revise established truths and “represent the culmination of more than a decade of genocide denial and historical revisionism by the [Party of Independent Social Democrats-led] government”.

The director of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of Republika Srpska, Branko Todorovic, also argued that the commissions’ goal was to exonerate Serbs accused of responsibility for wartime crimes.

“Their goal is to enable the authorities who committed the crimes to justify themselves and to relativise, minimise, falsify and justify the crimes. This is not just the goal of these commissions, but also of all ruling political structures in Bosnia and Herzegovina over the last 20-plus years,” Todorovic told BIRN.

Focusing on Serbs’ suffering

A young Serb at the grave of a relative killed during the war in Bratunac near Srebrenica. Photo: EPA/MZWELE.

The International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Bosnia’s state court have all classified the mass killings of more than 7,000 men and boys from Srebrenica in July 1995 by Bosnian Serb forces as genocide.

However the Bosnian Serb authorities, and governing politicians in Serbia, have consistently refused to accept that the massacres constituted genocide.

In 2004, the Republika Srpska government adopted a previous commission’s report on events in and around Srebrenica in from July 10 to 19, 1995 – a report which acknowledged that Bosnian Serb forces killed thousands of Bosniaks and said the executions represented a serious violation of humanitarian law.

But this report was annulled at a special session of the Republika Srpska National Assembly last year. Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik, who initiated the parliamentary session, said that the document contained “false data” and had been put together under pressure from the international community’s High Representative in Bosnia at the time, Paddy Ashdown.

Dodik claimed that the Srebrenica crimes were being exaggerated “with the intention of satanising Serbs”.

Kojic said that the new Srebrenica commission’s task was not only to look at the events that happened during “seven or nine days in July 1995” – when Bosniaks were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb forces – but everything that happened in the Srebrenica region between 1992 and 1995.

When ordering the new report, the Bosnian Serb parliament said it should highlight “the suffering of Serbs in and around Srebrenica” as well as crimes against Bosniaks.

But the US embassy in Sarajevo insisted that the verdicts of international courts could not be questioned.

“The International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, have both concluded that what happened in Srebrenica, in July 1995, was genocide. Everyone should respect court decisions and bravely face and accept the truth, regardless of how painful it was,” the US embassy said in a statement after the Bosnian Serb authorities announced the establishment of the new commissions.

The International Commission for Missing Persons pointed out meanwhile that the commissions could not affect facts about the number the number of victims’ bodies found and identified.

“More than 8,000 persons were reported missing during the fall of the UN’s protected zones of Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995. Out of that number, 6,979 persons have been identified through a DNA analysis. Only 84 persons had been identified before the ICMP introduced the DNA-based identification procedure in 2001,” the ICMP told BIRN.

“Determining a person’s identity is based on reliability of at least 99.95 per cent. The identity of the large majority of persons who went missing in Srebrenica and Zepa has been scientifically and definitely confirmed,” it added.

Kojic however denied that the Republika Srpska government intended to play down the seriousness of the wartime violence.

“The accusations that the Republika Srpska government wants to minimise the crimes in Srebrenica are meaningless,” he said.

Half-truths and genocide denials

A woman mourns at the mass burial of 282 Bosniaks from Srebrenica in July 2003. Photo: EPA PHOTO/EPA/FEHIM DEMIR.

The Republika Srpska government has appointed Israeli historian and Holocaust researcher Gideon Greif, a professor of Jewish and Israeli History at the University of Texas, as chairman of the Srebrenica Commission.

“The aim of the commission is to establish the truth, of which there can be only one, and it is the commission’s moral obligation to be loyal to facts, the truth and the victims,” Greif told Bosnian Serb public broadcaster RTRS earlier this month.

Adenrele Shinaba, a Nigerian expert on the Boko Haram terrorist organisation, who has also been appointed to the Srebrenica commission, told Bosnian media in October 2018 that the commission a step “to reach the truth through objective findings and thus contribute to reconciliation among peoples”.

However some commission members have expressed pro-Serb or anti-Islamic opinions in the past, or have declared that the Srebrenica massacres were not genocide.

A member of the Sarajevo commission, Raphael Israeli, a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told Serbian news magazine Pecat in 2011 that “the only proven genocide is the Holocaust, it was an attempt to systematically exterminate an entire nation”.

Another Sarajevo commission member, former French army officer Patrick Barriot, testified for the defence of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic and Croatian Serb wartime rebel leader Milan Martic at the Hague Tribunal. Barriot claimed during Milosevic’s trial that Serbs were only defending themselves against Islamic terrorism, and later co-authored a book describing the trial as an “indictment of the Serbian people”.

The international experts’ open letter questioned the credibility and impartiality of the commissions, claiming that their membership “is composed of fringe elements, individuals who do not represent either the consensus views of the academic or legal communities, and who appear handpicked to produce narratives that will advance the revisionist politics of the current RS [Republika Srpska] government”.

Kojic argued however that Bosniak politicians in Sarajevo had been seeking to enforce their own narrative of the 1992-95 conflict ever since it ended.

He said that “in Sarajevo political circles, the truth was determined in 1996, and they have been trying to impose it [on everyone else] ever since”.

Kojic acknowledged that it was unlikely that the Sarajevo city authorities will collaborate with the commission probing violence in the capital, which was besieged by Bosnian Serb forces for the duration of the war.

“Nevertheless, I am calling on [the Sarajevo authorities] to cooperate and, if they have documentation that supports their stance, to make it available to the commission. They are avoiding the truth. They are trying to maintain a false thesis by hiding documentation, through media reports and grotesque court proceedings,” he said.

He added that both commissions will also deal with the way the media reported on the Bosnian war, “creating an image for the international public that Serbs had an exclusive responsibility [for crimes]”.

Fernando Travesi, executive director of the International Center for Transitional Justice, said that some truth-seeking commissions set up by governments merely appear to be intended to seek truth.

“Some governments, which have no real interest in implementing justice, responsibility, reparations or reforms that substantially deal with consequences of violations of human rights or historical roots of violence, have learned to play a game and use transitional justice language in order to satisfy the international community or appear as though they follow international standards. Their actual goals, however, are opposite to the goals of transitional justice,” Travesi said.

Former Bosnian judge Vehid Sehic pointed out that the biggest problem preventing Bosnia and Herzegovina from honestly facing the past was the fact that nobody in the country’s three major communities – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – genuinely wants to assess what happened exclusively on the basis of the facts that have been determined by the courts.

“There are always three truths in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but there can only be one,” Sehic said. “In fact, these are half-truths which can sometimes be more destructive than lies.”

Albina Sorguc

This article is also available in: Shqip Македонски Bos/Hrv/Srp

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